Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 2. Electronic Contact Mirrors Face-To-Face Contact

While last week’s post “The Office Is Not Dead” established that we still need the physicality of a shared workplace in order to create awareness, co-presence, encounter and identity among employees, this week’s second blog post in the series 5 Things You Might Not Know About Offices will focus on patterns of communication.

The myth to be dispelled this time goes like this: technologies have enabled us to communicate anytime anywhere with anyone we like, therefore communication can now spread around the globe without limitations and overcome the boundaries of physical space.

Clearly, we can see some of this happening every day: we might be emailing colleagues or collaborators located in a different city, country or continent. We might be sharing information on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Yammer and thus reaching an audience widely distributed and indeed not necessarily bound to a specific location. Communication in this sense obviously travels and overcomes physical boundaries quite easily. Long distance communication however is nothing new, as Rainie and Wellman point out in their book ‘Networked‘. They argue that there has always been long distance communication within and between organisations (e.g. Egyptian granaries feeding Rome, or the British East India Company ruling India), yet what has changed is the associated cost of this communication. So with the diffusion, affordability and ubiquity of mobile computing, communication is finally liberated from the high costs of overcoming space and thus from spatial limitations.

Still (and this is where it gets interesting) our patterns of communication often do not make use of this new freedom to connect with anyone anywhere anytime. Surprisingly, we reproduce known patterns of who we connect to. MIT media scholar Ethan Zuckerman has explained in his TED talk how the web connects the globe but we increasingly hear from people just like ourselves.

What is more, we appear to connect online with the very people we see in person. I have found this relationship again and again in my own research of communication networks within organisations, so let’s look at some of these results.

In an unpublished study of the open-plan workplace of a media agency in London in 2010 in collaboration with Spacelab architects, we found that there is an 80% overlap between electronic and face-to-face communication networks, i.e. the correlation between the network relationships of face-to-face encounter and email exchange was R2=0.80. This means that the majority of staff email those colleagues frequently that they also see face-to-face a lot. The similarity between the two networks is shown in the images below, where nodes are coloured according to departmental affiliation.

Patterns of face-to-face communication in Media Company

Patterns of face-to-face communication in Media Company in 2010

Patterns of email communication in Media Company

Patterns of email communication in Media Company in 2010

In another study, this time of an academic institution in Cambridge accommodated in a cellular office environment, my collaborators and I found that there is a slightly less pronounced 70% overlap between electronic and face-to-face communication networks, with an R2=0.69 for planned contact. Interestingly, unplanned face-to-face encounter shows slightly less overlap with an R2=0.64. Still this means that academics in this university department tended to email those they communicated with face-to-face. Following up on the finding that distances between desk locations of co-workers affect their communication frequency, it is even more interesting that there is also a significant relationship between distance networks and email contact (with a correlation coefficient of R2=0.43), so this means academics even tended to email those people more frequently that were physically located in closer proximity to them. These results show that electronic contact did not overcome space at all, but copied the patterns of face-to-face communication.

In a different study with collaborators from Canada, we looked at a non-office based workplace setting, i.e. the communication networks of doctors, nurses and clerks in outpatient clinics in two hospitals A and B. There we found some interesting differences. In hospital A we found a strong 90% overlap between electronic and face-to-face communication (R2=0.87 for planned and R2=0.91 for unplanned face-to-face contact), however in hospital B this relationship was much weaker (yet still significant) with only 30% overlap between electronic and face-to-face contact networks (R2=0.35 for planned and R2=0.29 for unplanned face-to-face contact). Essentially this means staff in Hospital A had frequent electronic contact to those they also met face-to-face, while staff in Hospital B used electronic contact as a means to overcome spatial boundaries. Hospital A had a very modern and flexible technology solution, where contacting others electronically was easy and embedded in the everyday work processes of staff. Additionally, spaces were open and face-to-face contact flourished. In contrast, Hospital B was more traditionally organised (both spatially and culturally) and electronic contact occurred in isolation of other tasks.

It seems that open spaces with high levels of face-to-face communication result in higher levels of overlap between electronic and face-to-face contact, so that the two modes of communication form almost identical network structures. In short, in those environments staff email those people most often that they also see face-to-face a lot. In contrast, spaces that maintain stronger boundaries, e.g. the cellular academic workplace in Cambridge and even more so the traditional setup of Hospital B may result in electronic contact patterns that overcome space to a higher degree and therefore act complementary to face-to-face communication.

Of course all of these examples only consider communication patterns within a single organisational context and do not account for contact patterns beyond organisational boundaries. Still I would hypothesize that frequency of electronic contact probably still mirrors face-to-face communication for most people, tasks and roles, even if we take all possible recipients of communication into account. For instance in academia I might send an email to a co-author in a different institution or country and if we currently write a paper together, this contact may be relatively frequent, but aggregated over time I probably still write more emails to my colleagues, collaborators and students that I also see face-to-face.

In summary, it appears that electronic communication patterns are in fact mirrored by our face-to-face networks, at least in the context of a workplace. There is a tendency to replicate face-to-face contact patterns in electronically mediated communication, specifically in openly structured workplace environments. This underlines the importance of the physical spaces we inhabit and their spatial configuration, since this (partially) drives who we talk to most often. So while we theoretically could overcome spatial boundaries with electronic communication, it seems we hardly ever do (statistically speaking). As with all good phenomena, the exception proves the rule.

4 thoughts on “Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 2. Electronic Contact Mirrors Face-To-Face Contact

  1. Pingback: Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 3. Movement Helps You Think | spaceandorganisation

  2. Pingback: Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: Cellular Space is Not the End of Communication | spaceandorganisation

  3. Pingback: Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 5. Open-Plan is Not Always From Hell | spaceandorganisation

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